Pirates can't rely on Zamalek to give them a passport to the semis - they must earn it
Orlando Pirates fans might look at the laborious manner in which their club beat tailenders Polokwane City this week and wonder whether their side can up their game when they take on Al Ahly on September 22.
The Confederation of African Football match is the last of the group stages to determine which two sides march on to the semis of Africa’s premier club competition.
It may not have been their intention, but Polokwane City possibly gave Pirates the best practice match they could find ahead of what must rank as one of the most important matches in the club’s 76-year history.
Pirates technical staff had an opportunity to see what the fringe players have to offer. This provided much-needed rest for some players after a hectic two months of travelling between Egypt (twice) and Congo-Brazzaville.
More importantly, Pirates got a sense of how to handle a side playing to avoid defeat rather than to win. Against the Polokwane side, Pirates had to practise patience and wait for opportunities before they could pounce.
As matters stand, Al Ahly top the standings in the mini-league stages and a point might be enough to see them through to the semifinals.
Against the Limpopo rookies, Pirates made six changes to the side that lost against AC Léopards in Congo-Brazzaville on September 14.
Striker Thamsanqa Gabuza and Aubrey Ngoma got their first starts for Pirates while Bafana Bafana defender Siyabonga Sangweni made his first league start since midway through the 2012-2013 season.
Lennox Bacela, whose two goals in the league stages have contributed towards Pirates feeling bullish about their prospects in this competition, should return in the place of Gabuza, who is not registered for the champions league. The meticulous Daine Klate should take the place of Ngoma, though on the evidence of the match on September 18 it would not be far-fetched if he replaced Tlou Segolela, who did not make much use of his pace and often took the wrong option.
Captain Lucky Lekgwathi is expected back but Rooi Mahamutsa raised his hand for selection against Al Ahly with a confident performance topped with his goal, which separated the sides. Then again, it is a long, long distance from Polokwane to Cairo.
Ahly might not need the win for the sake of points but the 3-0 home loss to Pirates must have hurt their pride. They might just want to put the loss in its proper perspective – playing away from their home ground, playing an afternoon match during the fasting month of Ramadan or simply that they underestimated the South Africans.
By making light work of their city rivals Zamalek, whom they beat 4-2 last week, Al Ahly reminded all and sundry that they were still the team to beat in Africa.
The same facts, to say nothing about a spot in the last four of the continent’s best football clubs, should also spur Pirates on. The Buccaneers should need no motivation against a side of Al Ahly’s pedigree.
Fortunately for fans and patriots alike, Pirates have the capacity necessary to beat Al Ahly and make South Africa proud.
The Pirates side that started the 2013-2014 season might be the same bodies and faces that ended the previous campaign but they are playing with a new attitude and style of play.
Sifiso Myeni, who has this season played in the number 10 position behind the main striker, brings creativity and an added attacking option.
Coach Roger de Sa would have been happy to see Andile Jali rise from the turf after spending a few minutes in agony with what appeared to be a shoulder injury. Jali might be small in stature but he brings the chutzpah and belligerence necessary for the task at hand against the Egyptians.
As he did in Brazzaville against AC Léopards on September 14, Patrick Phungwayo repeated a performance that must make De Sa and his technical team at the very least debate whether he should not start ahead of Thabo Matlaba, who missed the trip to the Congo due to suspension.
Though Matlaba has many of the positive traits of a modern wingback, he also bears all the trademarks of a talent that could have done with proper development when he was younger. Matlaba’s confidence on the ball is above average but, like Segolela, his greatest downfall is that his decision-making abilities leave a lot to be desired.
Another reason for a commanding performance by everyone selected for Pirates is that, with places for the MTN8 semifinals against Chiefs on September 24 at the same ground up for grabs, anyone who underperforms might just book himself a place on the bench, or even the stands, instead of partaking in the one fixture that most honest South African players would love to be involved in at least once.
Ultimately, Zamalek, the only side in the group that has no chance of advancing to the semis, might just give Pirates and Al Ahly a passport to the semis by salvaging some pride and beating Léopards, whom they host in Egypt.
That, however, must rank as an unattractive option. Too many South African football heartaches have been caused by hoping that others will fight their battles for them.
If Orlando Pirates want to be in the semifinals of the African Champions League, they must find a way of beating Al Ahly. It is that simple.